On July 31, 2005, the low-carbohydrate diet was declared dead by the popular media. The occasion was the filing of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy by Atkins Nutritionals, a company founded by the godfather of the low-carb diet, Robert Atkins, M.D. Atkins himself wasn’t around to watch his company fade, since he had died two years earlier after slipping on an icy sidewalk in New York and going into a coma.
Although Atkins’ name was most associated with the low-carb diet, he was hardly the first to advocate that kind of eating plan. The use of a low-carb diet dates back to antiquity—the fifth century B.C. to be exact. A two-time Olympic long-distance champion named Stymphalos attributed his athletic success to following a diet of mostly meat. The legendary Greek wrestling champion Milo of Croton, who won no fewer than five Olympic wrestling events between 536 and 520 B.C., was reputed to eat an average 19 pounds of beef daily to attain his prodigious strength. Milo is also famous for using the first progressive-resistance exercise regimen, which consisted of lifting a calf every day, even when the calf became a bull. Whether that bull eventually became a source of protein for Milo isn’t recorded.
The first popular low-carb diet was offered by William Banting, a retired London undertaker who claimed to have shed 45 pounds of fat in 1863 by eating a low-carb diet. The diet was suggested to him by Dr. William Harvey after Banting consulted him about a recurrent earache. The doctor felt that Banting’s symptoms stemmed from the excess fat in his ear. Banting was so impressed by the results of his diet that he published it in a brief book called Letter of Corpulence that became the first commercial diet book.
In the early 20th century, Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson lived among the native Inuit people and adopted their 90 percent meat and fish diet, devoid of carbohydrates. While consuming this diet, Stefansson noted that he and his fellow explorers remained healthy. In fact, the only side effect occurred when one intrepid explorer decided to eat fish only. That led to nausea, which was rapidly rectified when fat was added to his diet.
When Stefansson reported on the diet in a series of published articles, medical professionals expressed skepticism concerning the effects of not eating carbohydrates. Stefansson elected to prove his contention about the safety of the diet by living in a metabolic ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York while eating a carb-free, meat-based diet for one year. During that time he was closely observed by medical researchers. The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1928, showed zero adverse effects from the diet, not even a vitamin deficiency.
Since then, numerous versions of the low-carb diet have appeared. The most popular was Atkins’ plan, first published in 1972. The cornerstone of Atkins’ and all other low-carb diets is that bodyfat is largely the result of excess insulin release. Insulin is required for the uptake of glucose into cells, but it also stimulates the synthesis of bodyfat.
According to low-carb-diet proponents, those who have excess bodyfat produce too much insulin because their enlarged fat cells make them insulin insensitive. Carbs are considered the primary culprit because sugars trigger the greatest release of insulin. A lesser-known fact is that protein also triggers insulin release, explaining why modern postworkout supplements emphasize a combination of protein and simple carbs—taken together, the nutrients maximize insulin release more than either alone.
Critics of low-carb diets point out that it’s calories that count when it comes to bodyfat loss. Many suggest that insulin alone doesn’t stimulate excess bodyfat in the absence of an excessive calorie intake. Studies with diabetics and nondiabetics in which the subjects ate an identical number of calories—the only difference being that one group also injected insulin—demonstrated that those injecting the insulin had significantly more bodyfat. Isolated-fat-cell studies also show that insulin alone doesn’t trigger bodyfat synthesis. If you add sugar to the mix, however, bodyfat synthesis goes up significantly.
Still, the debate rages about the effectiveness and safety of low-carb diets. Studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found that while low-carb diets are effective for weight loss, it was the drop in calories on the diets that caused the fat loss, not the decreased carb intake.1 What the authors didn’t explain, however, was the average 37-pound weight loss for those on low-carb regimens, compared to the four-pound weight loss for those on a high-carb diet.
Another study found that when compared to a lowfat, high-carb eating plan, low-carb diets proved superior for spurring bodyfat loss for the first six months. After a year, however, both diets showed similar results, which can be explained by the gradual addition of carbohydrates to the diets of initial low-carb dieters. Those on the low-carb diet showed some beneficial changes in cardiovascular risk factors, such as increased high-density lipoprotein and lowered blood triglycerides.2 A more recent survey comparing various diets showed that the low-carb diet proved superior to high-carb, lowfat diets for fat loss.
When Atkins released his book Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution in 1972, he was promptly pilloried by his colleagues in the medical profession. The acerbic critiques targeted Atkins’ espousal of a high-fat intake, even saturated fat, the alleged dietary demon linked to cardiovascular disease. Atkins, a practicing cardiologist, felt that insulin was a more direct cause of cardiovascular disease than saturated fat. He believed that an increased fat intake wasn’t a problem because you’d use the fat as an energy source in the absence of carbohydrate.